The formal opening of talks Friday between the Venezuelan government and opposition raises some hope that the country's deep political crisis may be resolved peacefully. But neither side appears willing to give way on seemingly irreconcilable demands.
Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, the OAS, who is to chair the negotiations, called in his opening remarks for both sides to avoid the heated rhetoric that has characterized the political debate in Venezuela almost since President Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999. "Venezuela needs much more mutual respect," Mr. Gaviria said. But observers say the talks are more likely to proceed in an atmosphere of mutual hostility.
The opposition, represented by a loose coalition of business and labor organizations, political parties and NGO's, regards Mr Chavez as both incompetent and autocratic. They are demanding an early chance to submit the president's popularity to referendum. To that end, it recently delivered what it says are over two million signatures to the country's electoral authority, the CNE.
Mr. Gaviria agrees that the solution to the crisis has to be electoral, and the issue of when to hold an election is the main point on the agenda for the talks. The government, however, says that, unless the constitution is amended, the earliest date for a referendum on Mr. Chavez's presidency would be next August.
The opposition insists, however, that, if the government fails to show flexibility on this point, it will call an indefinite general strike to force Mr. Chavez out.
Meanwhile, Mr. Chavez's government has taken several steps to forestall a referendum. First, it asked the supreme court to oust the current board of the CNE. And, while the court threw out the request, several members of the board resigned in what the opposition says is the result of the government's attempts to paralyze its work.
Should the board decide to go ahead with the referendum anyway, the government is almost certain to challenge its constitutional legitimacy.
With both sides of Venezuela's political divide barely talking to each other, observers say the hope for an early settlement appears slim.